A CCORDING TO NUMEROUS MAJOR CULTURAL CRITICS, we long ago passed the High Noon of the Printed Word and are now sinking into the Gutenberg Twilight. These arbiters declare that books-which Wordsworth called “that light bequeathed by dead men to their kind”-are fast becoming artifacts, passing into history with the mastodon, the pyramids, and large social programs dreamed up in Washington. Yes, America and the world are online, plugged-in, CD ROM-antics, and we’ve no more need for those dull little bricks of black ink on white paper.
Well, don’t you believe it.
Despite the seductions of the Internet and the beckoning video stores, more and more Dallasites are spending time in bookstores, especially the behemoth superstores Barnes & Noble and Borders Books & Music. Strange but true. On any given afternoon, the in-and-out traffic in the parking lots resemblesfeature change time outside a blockbuster movie house. Inside, people meander hack and forth, browsing from aisle to aisle, sampling book after book, wandering into the coffee bar for some java, a muffin, and just good old-fashioned replenishment of the spirit.
Paradoxes, anyone? These 20,000-to 40,000-square-foot superstores have small bookstore owners around the country shuddering in their dust jackets. The big stores have been called retailing “category killers” similar to Toys “R” Us or Home Depot. But despite their awesome size and the economic muscle they carry, the superstores also offer the ambience of a clubby oasis, and Dallasites are accepting the invitation to eat, drink, and enjoy the literate life.
Most people who come to one of the stores stay one to two hours, says Dan Conetta, vice president of marketing tor Borders Books & Music. Before they leave they buy an average of two to three books. At today’s prices, particularly for hardbacks, that means a purchase of $.30-$50.
Both chains have worked hard to encourage long lingering and heavy browsing. The coffee bars become centers to meet friends, finish a day’s work, read the newspaper, or have a business meeting. Attorney Dal ton Harris often meets his uncle in Borders’ Espresso Bar (E-Bar to the regulars) to play chess-board and chess pieces provided by the establishment. He also comes almost daily to do paperwork. “I mean,” Harris says, “a guy can only spend so many hours a day in his office. I take work over there just to be in a different environment.”
Hetty Hollander, wife, mother of adult children, and community volunteer, comes in so often that Rick Beauchamp, working behind the counter in the E-Bar, starts preparing Hollander’s cappuccino as soon as he sees her in the front door. Hollander settles in, writes to her family, perhaps starts a new Jonathan Kellerman novel, and finishes the paperwork for her volunteer counseling at Family Outreach. Sometimes she meets friends or one of her daughters-in-law.
For Kay and Jim Richardson, a Piano couple, evening trips to Barnes & Noble with their children are as natural as dessert after dinner.
“Jim will find a magazine,” says Kay. “Or he and I will sit in the cafe to visit over coffee. The children are real happy in their section and in the software department. If we’re kind of sitting around on a Friday night, the children will say, ’Can we go to the bookstore?’ They never said ’Can we go to the library?’”
Caroline Bret tell, professor of anthropology and chair of Southern Methodist University’s anthropology department, likens the phenomenon to what she calls Europe’s cafe culture.
“Whether we’re talking about France,” she says, “or even my experience working in Portugal, people there use those cafes to do their work. I had an academic colleague who would literally go sit for hours on end.
“Historically,” she muses, “people used to entertain themselves with things like musicales, poetry readings, things like that, and that sort of disappeared. Maybe we’re coming back into another cycle, a level of intellectual activity with other people. Maybe there’s dissatisfaction in the way that culture and society have gone, and we’re looking for different ways of connecting.”
Could be. Hollander, who hails from the Netherlands, knows exactly what Brettell means when she talks about cafe culture.
“In Europe,” Hollander says, “you could sit with a cup of coffee on a terrace for hours and they don’t bather you with a menu. They don’t look you away like they do in restaurants here with a cup of coffee.”
OF COURSE, GOOD BOOKSTORES ARE nothing new to Dallas. There’s homegrown Half Price Books (now a 51-store national chain) and The Original Magazine & Book Store, specialty shops like Black Images Book Bazaar and The Mystery Book Store, not to mention dearly departed “personal’1 bookstores like House of Books and Shakespeare Books.
Dennis Hatch, former district manager for Barnes &. Noble, describes Dallas as one of the strongest book markets in the country.
“It’s about the only city that I can think of,” he says, “that has Bookstop, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Taylors, Brentano’s, B. Dalton, and WaldenBooks all in one place.”
Bookstop, today owned by Barnes & Noble, was the forerunner of the bigger-is-better trend. In 1985 the chain introduced Dallas to 10,000 square feet of paperbacks, hardcovers, and magazines under one roof in Preston Forest. At that time Bookstop was a straightforward book-selling outfit-no coffee, no music, no chairs. Thanks to aggressive discount pricing, a wide range of choice, and late hours, Bookstop quickly became the 900-pound gorilla on Dallas’ literary scene. Hatch won’t reveal profit margins, instead coyly describing Dallas as “one of our strongest Bookstop markets.”
Then, in late 1992, Borders opened a mammoth store three times the size of Bookstop at Preston Road and Royal Lane. Barnes &. Noble followed in the fall of 1993, bringing 26,000 square feet and 40,000 titles to the corner of Belt Line and Preston Road. A scant year later, Bames & Noble put in a second store at Park and Piano Road. That October, a third Barnes & Noble opened across from Collin Creek Mall in Piano. Borders plans to open at Preston and Park this September, and hopes to launch an Old Town outpost in 1996.
Although Borders discounts some items, most notably books on the New York Times bestseller list, everyday low prices are not the draw. Nor is price the main magnet at Barnes & Noble. True, Barnes & Noble’s publishing connections mean it can offer books at a great price, but few customers seem to care. As one patron in Borders’ E-Bar commented, “I’m someone who doesn’t like to pay retail for anything. Yet I buy a lot of books here.”
Borders showed public relations savvy from the start, positioning the store as a contemporary community center with a five-day opening that benefited a different charity each day-among them LIFT (Literary Instruction for Texas), the Genesis Women’s Shelter, and Equest. To qualify, each of the charities had to be local ard solely dependent on its own efforts for money, meaning if received no United Way or national parent organization dollars. Patrons immediately understood that this was a place where they could leave behind show and sham.
AT BOTH SUPERSTORES, STAFF MEM-bers are hired for subject expertise, not their retail background. They’re expected to know books and care about the life of the mind. Borders even gives prospective employees a literary quiz.
So when a young couple enlisted Borders’ Cheryl Weinherg’s help in finding a natal chart, Weinberg did more than rely on the computer’s list of titles. Instead, she headed straight for the shelves to pull books she herself had consulted for information. The three then delved into deep conversation about the place of philosophy in our self-understanding, whether astrology is taking its place (let’s hope not), and which books and authors have the most to say about all this. Weinberg stayed with them about 10 minutes, and the couple sat on the floor reading for another 15 minutes hefore leaving with two volumes.
A schedule of nonstop activities rounds out the environment. Jazz groups, banjo players, and classical guitarists entertain in the coffee bars. Book signings, a staple at other stores, are rarely mere autograph sessions. They include presentations, discussions, readings, and tastings of cookbook recipes.
Although major authors like Gloria Steinem arrive as part of theirnational tours, the community relations coordinators for both bookstore chains prefer showcasing local and regional talent. In one 10-day period last summer, patrons could hear authors ranging from motivational master Zig Ziglar to two Dallas-area women who gave demonstrations from their new book Marketing Your Arts and Grafts. One couple stayed to chat with “8 Country Reporter” Boh Phillips at Barnes & Noble after he talked about writing Offbeat Texas Spots. They wanted his recommendations tor their upcoming trip to the Texas Hill Country.
On Saturdays, youngsters flock to the large children’s areas for story hours. Recent ly, Borders’ Oliver Markwirth read The King, The Mice and The Cheese, in American Sign Language (“Interpreter will be provided” the flyer promised those children who use spoken language).
Another lure of the superstores is the wildly eclectic magazine selection. Among the almost 1,600 titles at Barnes & Noble- including out-of-town newspapers and every imaginable mainstream publication-the browser will find obscure journals for myriad special interests: Filipina, Prison Life, Crappie World, Nude and Natural The Biblical Archaeology Review, the lesbian magazine Deneuve, The Perot Periodical, and Anarchy. While adults peruse the more than 80 computer-related titles, kids can thumb through the children’s magazines on the lower racks.
Meanwhile, in Borders’ E-Bar, Carol Levy, partner in a handwriting analysis business, sat with her partner planning strategy for their next sales call. Such meetings are not unusual. Lolly Wildharber, community relations coordinator for the Piano Barnes & Noble, sees the same EDS work group several mornings a week. “They’ve commented,” she says, “that EDS doesn’t have enough conference tables-and also that they like working here where it’s quiet.”
Nobody disputes the profitability of these stores (the average Borders grosses $7 million a year in sales, according to Dan Conetta.) But it’s hard to single out one element that accounts for the superstores’ success-the books, the CDs, the free entertainment, the coffee bar ambience.
For Rente Karp, program director at Temple Emanu-EI, and her husband, David, a pro-fessor of music at the Meadows School of the Arts, it’s the whole gestalt of the superstores. They come into Borders at least once every weekend,
“We reward ourselves by coming to the bookstore,” she says. “It’s so relaxing in our frantic lives. Some evenings we’ll just want to get out of the house but not do something busy or formal, so we’ll come to Borders. David will tell me 1 only can have 10 minutes, but once he’s in the music section, he’s lost. Or we’ll drop by after a movie on a Saturday night, and always run into people we know. What a change this has been in the city, and what a treat.”
Then, with some amusement, she reflects, “Coming in here is such a respite. Here we are in the age of rapid communication, and all I’m looking for is quiet.”
“We all feel a need to get out,” says Dr. Brettell, “not necessarily to meet people, hut to be among people and not feel so isolated and lonely. You want to be in. a place that is attuned to the tilings that you do and that you feel safe in, It may he that now, as we go into the ’90s and the next century, people are coming out again and looking for those forms of interaction and community,”
If so, they’ll find it at these large-hut surprisingly intimate– warehouses of culture. You can make book on that.